When I was sixteen, and thoroughly fed up with school, I went to a Royal Navy recruitment office. I knew that it was, at best a fool’s errand, but I didn’t care.
“Yes?” barked the man at the counter. Government institutions always seem to have counters, rather than desks in their reception areas. Why is that? Sorry. I digress. Getting back to the plot …
“I’d like to join the Navy,” I replied.
“Tell me, boy,” quoth he, “is that a white stick in your hand?”
“Umm … yes, sir, it is,” I said quietly. Actually, the proper term is “long cane”, but even my sixteen-year-old self realised that this wasn’t really the moment for my usual pedantry.
“Right,” he thundered, “well bugger off, and don’t waste my time!”
An entirely predictable, and indeed predicted, outcome. But, when I tell the story almost three decades later, I get asked if I was hurt by so blunt a rejection. The answer is no. My approach was foolish, and the rebuff was sensible.
There have, naturally, been other rejections since, both personal and professional. Of course, employers aren’t meant to refuse jobs on the grounds of disability, unless for health and safety reasons, but it happens. No similar rules can, or indeed should, govern dating, but I, and other people I know have been told things like, “I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t date a blind person”. Most of these things can, and are, shrugged off. At least by me. The exception to this, was the time when I failed to get a job as a Braille teacher. Despite training me, and knowing me to be qualified, the institution that had advertised the post elected to appoint a fully sighted, less well qualified person instead. I knew I was in a better position to do the job than the successful candidate, because I had been present at their first Braille lesson. Whilst I have absolutely nothing against the person who got the job, I must confess to a high degree of irritation with the organisation concerned.
Of course, being turned down by possible employers or potential partners isn’t the only societal difficulty for blind people. We are often overlooked, dismissed, or patronised. We are often grabbed by complete strangers – who may well have the very best of intentions, but one never knows – because, they tell us, we might brush past a lamp post that is about five yards away, and are expected to be grateful. A word of advice, dear reader, don’t do it. Not only is it grossly discourteous, not only is it deeply offensive, not only can it be alarming and distressing, but I’m advised that it is, legally speaking, a form of assault. There are other ritual humiliations which are part of the daily grind, but I shan’t bore you with them now.
Does all of the above make blind people victims? Yes and no. Yes, because we are all victims of our circumstances. But no, we are not special cases of victimhood. So why, you will want to know, am I banging on about all of this tedium? The answer is Diane Abbot, the first Labour member of Parliament to be both black and a woman.
For those who have missed the drama, let me offer a brief explanation. Diane Abbott wrote a letter to The Observer newspaper, in which she asserted that although ethnic groups such as the Irish, Romani and Jews experience prejudice, only people of colour are truly victims of racism. This is both an absurd and offensive proposition. All three groups can tell of centuries of persecution of their forefathers, simply for the crime of being who they were. Not all Jewish people are white. And the holocaust, in which six million people were killed (almost all of whom were Jewish or Romani), was the most egregious expression of racial hatred in history. Abbott pointed out that Irish Americans were not compelled to sit at the back of busses in the segregationist southern states, nor were Jewish South Africans denied the vote during the apartheid era. True. But in Germany during the Nazi era, Jewish people not only had to have brightly-coloured stars of David sewn onto their clothes, but weren’t allowed on busses at all.
Abbott has since been suspended from the Labour Party, as her letter has been deemed to be antisemitic. She has also apologised, and offered the bizarre defence that it was a draft letter, not the version that should have been published. But she still wrote it. And she hasn’t published any other version of the letter.
I’m not trying to compare racial discrimination with that suffered by blind people. They are two different things. Comparison is, therefore, meaningless. I’m simply trying, in my clumsy way, to say that playing the game of “I’m more of a victim than you” is fatuous at best. As I said above, we are all victims of our circumstances. It is, therefore, not a competition.
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